“That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need” (Laudato Si 227).
I read those words for the first time last year, and I have watched them transform my life in the time since. In this short passage from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, our Holy Father considers the importance of grace before meals, suggesting that we make this a daily practice with our families. These words resonated with me in the days immediately following my wedding, when I first read them, bringing me back to a time in my childhood when my entire family sat down to dinner nearly every night. Some days, it was the only time that we all saw one another. My dad worked. I played sports and had student council. My brother had his art classes, and my sister had homework. But regardless of what we had going on in our lives, when my mom called us all down to dinner, we went. For about ten minutes, we all sat around the table, shoveling food into our mouths before going off to evening meetings, sports events, and study groups. But those ten minutes of family time are some of the most valuable memories from my childhood.
We did not pray before every meal growing up. Grace was something reserved for large family holiday meals, when we would sit ten to a table, surrounded by all of our relatives. It was not a prayer that had a place at our dinner table every night. I didn’t start saying grace before all meals until I started taking my faith seriously again in high school. Now Andrew and I say grace together whenever we share a meal, and I say it out loud even when it’s just John and me, so that he can get used to it too. As a priest once told me, even the pagans prayed before meals. Only atheists don’t.
Even though my family did not regularly pray before meals when I was growing up, St. Francis’ words still resonated with me. Because in some ways, it still held true for my family. Meals were still moments of blessing for us. On a regular basis, my mother prepared home-cooked meals for all five, and before my sister got married, six of us. Those meals, and my mother’s efforts, brought our family together nightly. That dinner table, those moments of blessing, connected six, and sometimes more, individual worlds. It could have been so easy to just go on living in our own little bubbles, where we went from school to sports practice to student council meetings (or at least I did), but dinner time brought us all together. Even when we were all home, there were more than enough rooms in our house for us to go hours without seeing each other. We could have gone an entire day without seeing each other if it hadn’t been for our dinners together.
In the years since I was in high school, and especially since I moved to DC, our family dinners have morphed considerably. They once lasted ten minutes (the amount of time it took to devour dinner), and involved arguing from time to time. They happened nearly every night, and there was always a temptation to take them for granted. My siblings and I were your typically moody teens, and I don’t think we really appreciated those dinners as much as we should have.
Now we’ll sit around the dinner table for an hour just talking, though it still takes only ten minutes to wolf down all our food. We rarely, if ever, fight, though we have been known to have rather heated debates from time to time. Most of the time though, we just talk- about anything and everything. We talk about work, we talk about current events in our lives, and most recently, we spend our dinners talking about John and Pokemon Go. Our dinners now are much longer, but they are also more rare. Andrew and I only see my family every month or two, but that scarcity has only made us appreciate them more. They really are moments of blessing, reminders of what is most important in life, and opportunities to give thanks to God for the wonderful gifts that He has given us. These fond memories, and the love that they hold, are more than enough to convince me of the value of family meals that begin with grace. They are more than enough to convince me that it is a tradition worth carrying on with my own family. For now though, I’ll just be content trying to get my baby to eat his green beans without painting over every surface within arm’s reach.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!